Recently we published an article in which we listed a selection of studio gear which I consider to be absolutely essential in my tracking workflow. In this article we continue this theme and explore the in-the-box environment instead, more specifically our mixing workflows and plug-ins.
I consider the plug-ins that I am highlighting in this article to be more than just my go-to tools, these are my plug-in essentials, all of which I must have at my disposal for me to mix a session with confidence and ease.
It’s so important to use plug-ins that you know inside out, regardless of whether they are stock DAW plug-ins or third-party. For me, an essential plug-in is a tool that I know will deliver creative or technical results instinctively. Having absolute trust in your plug-ins along with knowing exactly how to use them are the keys to producing great sounding mixes, that you as a creative can proudly put your name to time and time again.
So what are the plug-ins I can not live without?
EQ & Filters
For years the previous version of FabFilter, Pro-Q 2, was a firm favourite of mine for mixing and mastering. If you ever got the chance to look through any of my mix sessions over the years you would find countless instances of Pro-Q across my tracks. It’s one of those types of plug-ins that, though quite visual, makes it easy for me to follow my instincts and make smart choices based on whatever I’m hearing. Any action, such as loading a band, setting a Q width or gain value is only ever a single click away. Nearly every operation is no more than two clicks away which makes for an incredibly easy to use plug-in. FabFilter took an already fantastic plug-in in Pro-Q2 and somehow improved on perfection in my books with Pro-Q3 by including dynamic EQ along with a raft of extra EQ goodies.
Pro-Q3 is eye-wateringly fast to use, sounds absolutely clean & musical, frugal on CPU resources, includes more EQ features than you’ll most likely need… all wrapped in a UI that’s resizable and intuitive. I’ve gone of record saying that FabFilter plug-ins are tools for modern producers and “Pro-Q, the swiss army knife of EQ plug-ins”, both these opinions still stand today.
A great way to add colour and character to elements in your mix is by using small amounts of saturation and distortion. I can not think of many mix situations in which I don't use some small form distortion to help shape a tone or define an instrument. There are countless applications for distortion in music production, but my essential tool for the job is Blue Cat Audio’s Destructor, which in my opinion is a one-stop-shop for grit. It features plenty of in-depth controls that I find produces some really amazing sounding distortion results. It can easily generate realistic guitar amp sounds while also being a very cool distortion mix tools for everything else. I recall using Destructor in a very busy mix that had pedal steel, lap steel, dobro, electric guitars, bass and drums tracks. None of these tracks were sitting well together. Destructor helped me stamp each of those instruments with an identity, which in turn helped me place each instrument alongside each other in the mix.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve changed my go-to compressor plug-in… most likely more times than I’ve had hot meals! In all seriousness though, FabFilter Pro-C2 has been the compressor I reach for when character isn’t called for. Like it’s popular sister Pro-Q3, Pro-C2 is very much an all-in-one dynamics toolkit. If you can’t get the perfect dynamic processing you want from this then you may as well apply your creative energies to a different art form. Pro-C2 makes it easy to hear how even the smallest of compressor controls changes can effect the sound and attitude of your tracks. This is thanks to the Auto-Gain feature, which balances the output level to match the level pre-compression. If you slam the threshold down in most traditional compressors you will get a huge dip in level that you have to make back up again on the output, not the case in Pro-C2, this is all done automatically for you enabling you to truly hear the compression effect instead of the level difference.
Don’t fool you ears with level difference when using compressor plug-ins, encourage your ears and your compression skills by using Pro-C2.
Slate Digital's FG-X mastering processor is another of my dynamic essentials that I use in my mastering chain all the time. Slate FG-X is undoubtedly a great sounding tool. It includes a very gentle bus style compressor and analog inspired limiter. The metering is a bit on the naff side, luckily there are plently of other tools that I trust to inform me about loudness… more on that shortly.
Like Pro-C2, FG-X features a killer auto gain feature called Constant Gain that keeps the plug-in output constant while dialling in different limiter values. An auto level feature should be standard in all dynamics plug-ins! In short, FG-X is one of the most simple to use mastering limiters on the market, it produces outstanding results on any style of music.
Over the years it’s been a hell of journey establishing my essential reverbs as there are so many quality reverbs out there in mixing land. Both NIMBUS and R4 by Exponential Audio, a company best known for producing some of the best reverbs in the industry, are by far my reverbs of choice. Though these plug-ins do look fairly similar in design they couldn’t be more different in application. NIMBUS is the tool to reach for when applying natural sounding ambiences while R4 is more for creative uses. Reverb plug-ins typically tax CPU quite hard, this isn’t the case with these plug-ins at all! There are times I use single instances of these as inserts on single tracks, the processing demands are that frugal.
Recently Exponential Audio became part of the iZotope family which is very exciting news
H-Delay from Waves was one of the first third-party delay plug-ins that I took seriously when I installed it years ago. There has been many other amazing third-party delay plug-ins pass through my sessions but I always seem to find myself gravitating back to Waves H-Delay. Why is this? Simple, because H-Delay is simple. When all else is said and done, in other delay plug-ins, which seem to have a millions controls and layers, H-Delay stands strong as a delay that can be easily wrangled to get impressive results quickly and easily. It’s the essence of an analog delay, nothing more, nothing less. Waves could had easily made this into a monster delay but they didn’t. It’s worth mentioning that Waves hasn’t released a standalone delay since…
I have two pitch correction essentials in my plug-in toolbox. Both Melodyne and Auto-Tune Pro have individual strengths that together provide me with all the tools I need to get vocals and other instruments in shape.
Melodyne is in my opinion the gold standard for surgical pitch correction work. When used musically and tastefully the tuning results will sound invisible. I steer clear from the automatic pitch and timing modes as the occasional note or two will land where it shouldn't musically. To get the most out of Melodyne's tuning powers you need to develop a workflow that forces you to use the main set of pitch tools that are accessible by right-clicking your mouse on the timeline in conjunction with your ears and musicianship.
Auto-Tune is THE alternative to Melodyne in terms of pitch correction. The process of pitch correcting a vocal note by note is achieved slightly differently by use of the Auto-Tune graphic mode but the magic of Auto-Tune is in the depth of creative possibilities it can provide. If used together these products can easily arrange the perfect over-tuned effect that we hear a lot of in commercial music.
Accusonus’ ERA-D is a smart denoiser plug-in. Accusonus doesn’t actually describe it as a denoiser, instead they refer to it as a noise and reverb suppression plug-in. What I love about it is that the denoise module is fully adaptive so there’s no need for me to engage a learn switch for detecting a the noise. The dereverberation module is as impressive as the denoise module, both produce very transparent results. I predominantly use ERA-D to tame and “suppress” electric guitar amp noise and to reduce noise floor hiss in recordings that were captured with dynamic mics. It’s simple, sounds great and works every time.
What’s a “utility” plug-in I hear you asking? For me utility plug-ins are tools that do not impart any sonic characteristics on my tracks but instead help me to improve the sonics of a track by use of visual displays or other magic. I have two plug-in utility essentials in my list:
LEVELS by Mastering The Mix is a straightforward metering toolkit gear towards music production that includes some very useful metering well beyond just loudness. LEVELS meters display Headroom, Dynamic Range, Stereo Field and a cool displayed called Bass Space which is particularly useful in a mix stage. Bass Space helps users get a good balance between bass instruments and kick drum tracks. Headroom and Dynamic Range meters are very easy to digest and highlight in red when the plug-in believes we are stepping over the line with limiting. LEVELS is customisable, in the setting menu we can choose from a number of mastering presets (CD, Club, Composer, iTunes, Soundcloud, Streaming & YouTube) making LEVELS a very versatile metering plug-in for all mastering applications.
Sound Radix Auto Align is my other essential utility plug-in. When ever I mix a project with stereo souces recorded with two or more mics, such as drums, pianos or guitars, I use Auto Align to ensure the phase relationship is bang on and that the time delays are also inline. I consider this one of my top three essential plug-ins of all time, it’s that useful! Yes, time delays can be sorted manually on the timeline… but who has the time or patience for that these days? I certainly don’t.
I cannot and will not mix without Sonarworks thrown on the last insert of a session’s master track. It’s one of my essential plug-ins because it simply corrects frequency response issues in my studio monitoring, which are caused by the physics of my room. It’s a simple process to setup using a measurement mic, which plots a calibration file that the software uses to provide me with a close to flat frequency response which in turn gives me the confidence to trust in what I’m hearing in a mix or master. Simply put, my mixes fail to translate outside of my studio through consumer playback systems if I don’t use Sonarworks in my mixing workflow.
On Reflection - Can You Spot What Type Of Plug-in Is Missing?
Take another look at the list, you won’t find any like-for-like plug-in emulations. The plug-ins in this list are all products, which are strong in their own right. Plug-ins that have a “vintage” heritage don’t secure a priority place in my mixing workflow but I do like to use emulations from time to time much like I use sugar and spice in my cooking.
My everyday plug-in essentials are tools that have earned their investment back time and time again as I know how they work, how they help me and what they can do when the application calls for it. Without these tools in my plug-in collection I would struggle to get my work done.
What are you top plug-in essentials for mixing that you know you can’t live without?